As part of Nova’s Let’s Talk About Race series, and to mark Black History Month 2022, we hosted a unique online event: Mixed Race Identity Through a Semiotic Lens
The session, presented by Chris Arning of Creative Semiotics, offered a deep dive into what it is to be mixed-race, combining lived experience with semiotic analysis. Semiotics is the study of implicit cultural patterns in communication. Although semiotics is a specialist field, Chris showed that it is an effective tool to help us better understand ourselves and the social context in which we live.
Chris brought his specialist knowledge of semiotics, extensive experience as a brand consultant, performance poet, and educator, along with his life experience as a British mixed-race person to outline how we are all inculcated into racialised identities.
In part one of the webinar, Chris reflected on his family history in which his white father married a black woman despite the overt racism of his family. And Chris described his schooling and the mixed messages he would receive from peers about whether he was Black, White, or neither, later experiencing the condescension of white people and suspicion from black Caribbean people.
Chris outlined the ways in which people are racialised within culture, and how signs become part of our communication. Semiotics looks at the signs and symbols of culture to identify underlying patterns. The use of “Blackness” as a foil for whiteness was explored, with Chris explaining that in the United States in the 19th century, the concept of “Blackness” enabled people from different European backgrounds to assert their new US identity by hurling racial epithets at African Americans. He also gave the example of the beauty industry and how different skin tones are used by advertisers and what messages this gives about what can be celebrated as beautiful.
In this context, sub-cultures can be a way for people to explore their identities, and Chris mentioned punk and hip hop as major cultural avenues that have enabled mixed-race people avenues to express and creatively challenge notions around racial identity.
Chris’s own journey has seen him embrace opportunities to “transcend binaries” through learning Spanish and living in countries where the populations were made up of people “with shades of brown” making it easier to assimilate. In Japan, Chris found that the level of xenophobia meant that any foreigner was treated as equally alien, levelling the playing field.
Reflecting on mixed-race identity today, Chris described the way it is often used for “lazy commodification to sell products”.
As well as taking questions and hearing personal stories and insights from participants, Chris also referred to the work of the sociologist Stuart Hall who coined the description of race as “the floating signifier”.
A second workshop with Chris to explore the topic further is being planned and will be announced soon.
Nova launched its Let’s Talk About Race series in the Summer of 2020, holding 13 dialogue events within five months that attracted 428 participants who made over 2,300 commitments to anti-racist actions.